War and the pity of war is a hefty, Homeric subject and Malick handles it superbly. As an action director, with an eye to the epic view, he has a marvellous modulation of suspense and space. He captures the nerve-racking fatigue of war as well as the breakneck fast-forward. There is also, complicatingly, the opposite pull of what nature can mean when it is anatomised in this paradisal Pacific context: the gorgeous range of colour in the plumage of a parrot (vibrant like the eye of childhood discovered all over again), the skitter of bats, the cuteness of tree kangaroos. All of this is shot radiantly, like a reproach to the very idea of action. Malick’s cinematographer John Toll is a master.
It would be wrong to say that it doesn’t work — it works with the authority of dream, rivetingly. But it sits more oddly than it is meant to with the carnage and clamour — mainly because of what comes between and links the two spheres, which is to say the human beings who fight the battles and who can also be deemed to “see” the beauty of nature at least through the eyes of the maverick (played by James Caviezel).
There’s a lot of weight on representative humanity in The Thin Red Line and it goes a fair way towards dissipating the dramatic strength of what remains a remarkable cinematic meditation. Malick’s vision is terrifically well co-ordinated in presenting the individual faces of men at war, he’s a fine ensemble director, but things get a lot more problematic, not to say tenuous, when the individuals are given room to move. In part this is a conflict between intrinsic Hollywood sentimentalism and the director’s drift towards establishing (or at any rate asserting) a kind of Whitmanic or Hindu-style world soul, an “immortal diamond” that can hold in its vision the birds of paradise and the ancient furry critters for all the mire of blood and death. It’s something that can be held only as an article of faith and Malick’s attempt to dramatise it is flatulent with the whirr of wings and prayers. One small index of what goes wrong in this respect is the way famous stars (John Travolta, George Clooney) play bit parts even if unknowns get to star.
The upshot is a kind of false individualism — at least in part — which clashes with the director’s sense of the ongoing river, the ongoing carnage and cycle. When the maverick, the deserter of The Thin Red Line’s idyllic opening, says to his sergeant (Sean Penn), “I’m twice the man you are,” the detail is wild and oracular, we don’t know where he’s coming from. But then there are moments of formalised grief which are almost trite. Something like unambiguous triteness overtakes the reveries of Ben Chaplin, the soldier who dreams of his wife (represented by the mute Miranda Otto). There’s something going on here but Malick doesn’t succeed in either sexualising it or giving it an affective punch. It is almost as if the idea of forties tendresse is usurping his sense of either the actuality or the dream.
THE THIN RED LINE is an extremely strange film which has an ungainly power in its least successful moments just as it has a besetting torpor and monotony for much of the time that it is minting fresh images of beauty and horror. At one level Malick resists the idea of pace as a packaging technique for the spectator. He annihilates pace so that violence and graphic action when they do come will retain their power to shock. This is wonderfully sustained — with a marvellous concomitant and contrapuntal sense of suspense — in the long build-up as the soldiers move gradually and nerve-rackingly, travelling blind, up the hill.
And there’s an equivalent command of dramatic tempo (through all its degrees) in the scenes where Nick Nolte’s colonel is screaming instructions to Elias Koteas’ captain. What goes wrong, nearly excruciatingly, is when one episode follows another without anything in the way of a dramatic bridge. Perhaps this is simply a refusal to concede anything to the audience, an honourable resilience, but I doubt it. In other respects, as I’ve suggested, The Thin Red Line is afflicted with a kind of cornball mysticism which isn’t above mussing the hair of the collective human face. (And it must be said that the interminable cracker-barrel voice-overs get mighty trying.)
And Malick seems unable to stop himself from going in and out of dramatic focus. This quality, which is no doubt inseparable from his instinctive sense of what he is doing, is impressive in the way it imposes an arbitrariness of shading on the action which is in some ways more like literary fiction than it is like a Hollywood film, but it also has a maddening quality.
In the matter of characterisation The Thin Red Line seems at times too angular and fierce, at times too “soft”. Early on we meet Nolte, alone watching the early morning sky which he hails as “rosy-fingered dawn”, eos rhododactylos, and this indicates, flatly and quietly enough, that he’s a man of some sensitivity as well as culture. Thereafter we see him in nothing but aggressive mood, raging, posturing, justifying himself, none of which is incompatible with the glimpse we’ve got, but none of it buttresses it. Nor is Nolte’s performance — a step away from being over the top as he pursues the vehemence of the caricature he’s supposed to inhabit — allowed any degree of spaciousness or sympathy. He’s a man who happens to have done his best to turn into a stereotype. This kind of effect bedevils Malick’s film partly as an estranging device and partly as a kind of nervous tic. He clearly wants human nature to be as observable as the world of an insect, but at the same time he can look as though he’s loading the dice.
When the Japanese are first captured and conquered there are extravagant scenes of distress, an overwhelming parade of humiliation and the apprehension of disgrace. Semi-naked oriental men scream and cry while one of their company prays to the lord Buddha. A hate-enraged American goes about pulling out the gold teeth of the dying, unimpeded by his comrades. In the symmetrical moment when much later the snipers confront a stunned American, they are monuments of calm bewilderment, repeating their words over and over. The effect is as remote from our expectation of drama in the cinema as ballet is.
It should be added that The Thin Red Line, for all its vagaries, conveys a sense of men under discipline, war-hardened and appalled by the austerity of war. In that respect it makes Saving Private Ryan look like a film for children by children (except for the single tremendous achievement of the first ten minutes of Spielberg’s film). And yet … in a host of ways the comparison goes the other way. Yes, Spielberg is corny and puerile but at every point he manages at least to set up some microdrama, some episode which is not merely an isolated epiphany but something which the action can resolve, visually and humanely, and work into the thread of his story. Saving Private Ryan is a facile film put next to the grandeurs and enigmas of The Thin Red Line but it can also make the latter look doodling, self-indulgent and unresolved.